Poljak: incredible leader and absolute beast

The painful but glorious career of Croatia's biggest star of the decade

Maja Poljak is the best known name in Croatian women's volleyball in the past decade. She played for some of the biggest clubs in the world, and earned numerous high-level international honours to leave a memorable mark on the sport, before retiring some three years ago.

“An incredible leader and an absolute BEAST!” her former teammate and close friend Jordan Larson said about her.

Poljak was only 15 when she made her debut in professional volleyball at Croatia’s Mladost Zagreb in 1998. Aged 16, she earned silver at the 1999 CEV Volleyball European Championship and played at the 1999 FIVB Volleyball World Cup with the Croatian national team.

She was 17 when she suffered her first major disappointment in volleyball. Young Maja was ready for an Olympic debut, but did not make Croatia’s squad for the Sydney 2000 Games, an occurrence she says changed the course of her career.

“My teammate Mia Jerkov and I were very young, but we were considered very talented and at the time we were supposed to be the future of the Croatian national team. So we expected to continue to be part of the roster, but unfortunately we ended up as the 13th and the 14th players on the list, with only the first 12 going to Sydney. It was really a huge disappointment at that moment, but also the most educating thing that I have had in my life. It pushed me to look for a different kind of motivation,” Poljak told Volleyball World.

“I received an offer to play abroad and even though I had not finished high school yet I told myself it was the right moment and decided to take my chances, exactly because I realised I needed to do something different and change things. To go to Italy was probably the best possible decision. The chance to work with top players and top coaches really helped me achieve incredible progress at that age. Maybe if I had played at the Olympics I would have never found the motivation to go abroad at such a young age. So I guess when bad things happen in our lives, we don’t have to think that it’s the end of the world because something really positive can come out of it. And I still finished my high school education and then graduated from a state university in Croatia, which I think is one of my biggest successes.”

With her first foreign club, Italy’s Minetti Vicenza, the talented middle blocker won the CEV Cup and the Italy Super Cup in 2001. Then she was part of the Foppapedretti Bergamo squads that won the CEV Champions League in 2005 and 2007 as well as the 2004 CEV Cup and several domestic trophies in Italy.

Poljak spent the next eight seasons in Turkey. After a year with Turk Telecom Ankara, she competed for the two major Istanbul powerhouses – two seasons with VakifBank and five with Eczacibasi VitrA – winning the Champions League twice more, once with each club, earning a Best Blocker award in 2011 and a Dream Team middle blocker spot in 2015.

“Most highlights of my career are connected to club competitions because my national team was not that successful. Every time we were competing in the Champions League finals, those were incredible moments when you just go to another dimension and it’s as if you completely forget all the things that you feel at that moment and you only focus on winning. It was really an incredible feeling for me to play any Champions League Final Four tournaments,” Poljak said.

With Eczacibasi, the Croatian star reached the top of Europe in 2015, but also the top of the world. The stellar Turkish squad triumphed as winners of the FIVB Volleyball Club World Championship in Switzerland, when Poljak was named one of the two middle blockers on the Dream Team.

Two years later, she earned that individual honour again, at the very last competition of her athletic career. She transferred to Dinamo Moscow for the 2016-2017 season and claimed the Russian Superliga title before making her way to the 2017 Club World Championship in Japan. Although Dinamo failed to reach the semifinals, Maja Poljak still received a well-deserved nomination to the Dream Team.

“I had the most remarkable experience at the 2017 Club World Championship. As usual at world competitions, the teams were great and the level was extremely high. That was actually my last ever competition and I have mixed memories of it. At the time, I felt a sense of relief because I was about to stop the pain that I was unfortunately going through with all my injuries, but, on the other hand, I was sad because an important chapter of my life was about to be closed.”

Maja has stayed with volleyball and currently she works as an events coordinator at the European Volleyball Confederation.

Read more: Roster 100 to showcase stars of volleyball and beach volleyball

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